New York City and Vicarious Living









Two guys were at it. It all started like this:

“I got it, dude ! you’re telling me that in New York anything can happen. I’ve been here since time immemorial, but you NEED to listen!  I’ve seen it with my own eyes. People who sit by the fountains and pretend to feed the fish, steal their money instead. I have seen that, more than just once. And who are you? I mean, whoareya? Don’t try to outsmart me or second-guess me.  And what do you mean by ‘I have an attitude?’   You are the one with the attitude, not me.”

And they went on and on… 

That was a typical New York crazy, neurotic urban argument and all that, in lieu of conversation. Take no prisoners, that’s right.  Everybody is King of the Hill; but if you ask them any one single personal question, they will claim you’re disrespecting. 
And how about the brand new NY implants (a.k.a. newbies)? Boy,they keep on coming, don’t they? Seeking glory in recognition, fame or fortune.  But don’t try to look for their backbone, ’cause you will have trouble finding it. And who can blame them?  Before they even arrive, they’ve been hearing all the stories. I’d be scared too.
But as soon as they listen to a NYC inspired song, Voila!! they  become instant, well… newyorkers.  And they will tell you so, first chance they get. Tell me that ain’t a good example of vicarious living.
I believe deep in my heart that all these migrant people who are here today lost, or are about to lose, their “from the cradle” cozy innocence. Of course that’s not saying that they wouldn’t have lost it in some other place anyway. But here, their metamorphosis is brutal. Going back to whatever tiny life they had back in their SmallVille bear-eating salmon cocooned small Americana town is absolutely not a choice.  So they stick, grind and stay.
For that, and in my humble opinion, I feel they should be praised.
Most intelligent folks realize that NY is a living oxymoron. And a monster at that.
There are as many contradictions here as there are those famous NY cockroaches.
The happy-go-lucky Puerto Ricans are the toast of the town. Granted. But we also know that they hold dear The Great American dream of which they belong to. When you dissect it, you’d see,smell and feel a fantastic “Cinderella” type of tale-ending story. And what a story that is!
Oh heck!  We all more or less know how the whole schlang went down for them about their independent (non-associated) state-hood. A very sweet, sweet, deal indeed. But boy! these guys really fought for us, not in one, but two World Wars plus Vietnam and Korea. Yes, the New York Puerto Ricans, otherwise known as newyork-ricans.  A true American ferry tale. 
Crime updates.  New York’s crime is rampant, anyone who can read, or choose to read newspapers knows that. The mayors are always promising the promised land.  After all it sounded great when MLK said it, even made him famous for it, or in spite of.
Crime in the Big Apple is synonymous with New York.  It’s everywhere, but I have never seen it.  Not once.  In twenty or so years that I lived in NY, I’ve never seen a felony being committed, much less a misdemeanor. The only crime I see is the terrible offense that is shown everyday when manners are such a misunderstood human feature; like something weird that went out of fashion a long, long time ago.  Worse, some interpret that as to mean weakness. Whilst some others think it could be some fancy French cuisine dish or maybe chow for the farm animals. MANNERS. Yeap, go figure…The Big Apple, gotta love it…

by René Volpi  ~stillmind~

“Tales from The Amazon”
 and Assorted Short Stories

POSTED MARCH 15, 2010
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Tales from The Amazon and Beyond

Cambodia. Tales from The Amazon and Beyond: Shades (Part 1) A different kind of jungle


Shades (part 1)
Blasting us in the night.


We were all around the fire just outside a shack we had found entirely by luck. By the looks of it, seemed was abandoned, or at least not really cared for by anyone in quite a long while. As is usually done, and by the stimulus of spirits–of the alcohol type–conversations were abundant and crisp. Just like any other instant, it took no time for all of us to get truly blasted and, as one would imagine, the tales we all told were successfully colored and even dramatic at times, all depending on the creative form of the speaker.  Not far away there was a swamp-like medium-sized lagoon where that night’s moon looked as if it was alive and dancing by means of its own reflection. It was indeed a sight to behold, and I began to experience a dream-like epiphany, as the voices suddenly changed tone and rhythm and at the same time sounded elongated and far, the laughter deep and spacey. I felt as if my presence was there, but yet my mind wasn’t.  I went with the moon that by now was dancing in the dark waters of the pond. The wood from the fire marked the moment, cracking loudly, speaking its language like conversing to the breeze that understood, as the leaves provided an ever so subtle chorus of many, lingering there in an absolute perfect cacophony of sounds. The nightly hours felt timeless, and in essence everything seemed as in sync with the moon that at one point looked like it couldn’t get any bigger, like it couldn’t dance anymore. . . .

But the night was far from over and by no means the fire pit would end anytime soon. This night was a night that no one would ever forget.  It was a time of uncontrollable, relentless fear. What started as a cozy evening by the fire, ended up being a time of desperation and despair by forces beyond our control or comprehension.  Events that took place that night would make a mark in our psyche that literally ended up scarring the deepest fibers of our beings. But before that, we would have to fight for our lives to a degree none of us thought possible. Not in a million years. And yet we did. Some of us would meet tomorrow. Too many of us did not.


(to be continued in Part 2)
                             —–          



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Shades (Part 2) A different kind of jungle

Shades 


(part2)


Cambodia:  A different kind of jungle.



We are in Cambodia. Here, anything can happen. And everything did. I am suddenly surrounded by the impoverished souls of terminally broken people. These, little did they know it then, would turn out to be the future monsters of this lost and tragic nation.


They came silently in the night, protected by their tattooed darkened faces and, of course, the brush. My first raw instinct –since I had become an almost accidental photojournalist–was to announce myself as such, barely audible in a very shaky Khmer language, “Oh…Foreign Journalist!!…International Press!!!” (about seven vowels put together) hoping that would perhaps shield us from further danger, including straight out execution, a highly organized trait and preferred MO in the Cambodian jungles. They did raise their fully automatic AK’s, which was to be expected, so we all did the only counter-maneuver possible and readily available: palms together to the forehead in a prayer gesture. We were all frozen with fear, our likeness pale and drawn, for an instant that lasted two lifetimes, maybe more.


Only when one of them broke into laughter I took the most difficult step forward of my uneasy life, not for a second deviating my eyes from the huge long barrel and the face that owned it. Hardly breathing, I managed to break a crooked smile as I continued to repeat the same words over and over, almost as if I had assumed they didn’t hear me the first time nor the second. But I was a sorry excuse for a mantra-repeating terrified monk. Just as the moment came with a sense of a miracle in heaven, it dissipated just as fast. Not everybody was laughing, and just as the instant bore a promise, it immediately cloaked into another terrifying one.


He couldn’t have been twenty years old, but his eyes were forever. And so he took a life forevermore, and didn’t even change his expression. . . .




The count stops roughly at 1.7 million murdered Cambodians. Even more died in the aftermath of it, due to complications of the torture and subsequent maladies of the longest 4 years of that country’s existence, also known as the Magnificent Angkor.




I still have terrible trouble even trying to put these horrible events in ANY kind of perspective; therefore, I will stop attempting to do so, just like then, and hope that it will not ever be forgotten or shuffled down in the annals of History.  I do find it abhorrent, however, that we, the free people of the West, allowed that implacable Genocide to occur, even after we had made the now obscene claim of –Never Again–!   And yet, it was allowed to happen. We let a monster named Pol Pot, himself a Cambodian, drive and push his own country towards one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th Century.




On April 17, 1975, Pot himself–the monstrous leader of the communist guerrilla organization–transformed Cambodia into a virtual prison without walls. This extreme form of radical communism annihilated religion, culture, currency, personal property, hospitals, schools, the banking system and every other vestige of modern urban life.
Nearly half the population of Cambodia died in the four years that followed, many in the “killing fields” such as Toul Sleng, the slaughterhouse in Phnom-Penh. Those who survived emerged forever scarred by the four year nightmare of forced labor camps, starvation, brutality and mass murder.


But now it’s December, 1989, and 15 years later.  What has really changed?  Khmer Rouge is still roaming the countryside with impunity. The Vietnamese liberated the country from the iron fist of forced labor and human atrocities in ’79.  And the only reason they left after 10 years of occupation was based solely on the fact that the Soviet Union stop supporting them–financially anyway.
The incredible thing is that, as soon as the Viets departed, Khmer Rouge decided to seek their revenge. Their own compatriots were killed, tortured and massacred.   If there was a single unproven accusation that they cooperated with the Vietnamese in any way, shape or form there would be no trials, no defense; nothing but kangaroo courts, a circus, not a trial, and they would never be seen again. The US after taking a serious final licking by the North Vietnamese until ’75, having to leave a country in ruins, did not do anything. So, what improved? We were all over in South East Asia, provoking the war against Viet-Nam on a single Gulf of Tomkin incident, betrayed almost everyone who trusted us, breaking promise after promise, sold out our own allies who were helping us, and left a mess so bad that it would take decades to fix.
Even now, things aren’t back to normal; the countryside is full of unexploded bombs all the way from Cambodia to Laos, and all the stops in between. Children, those poor innocents who weren’t even born when the war was at it’s peak, are now getting blown to pieces from still active mines that all sides involved in the conflict, put candidly all over their  countries.  With the Khmer Rouge still very active, the Thais are the only ones who are helping out with the leftovers of a war that never really ended, by allowing refugee camps inside their borders near the small town of Aranyaprethet, working together with UNESCO. Having really nowhere to turn, Cambodians are trying to just make it, day to day, under terrible conditions due to overcrowding and lack of medicine and basic resources. The Cambodian’s plight is by far one of the most–very possibly the the worst– tragedy of the late 20th Century for SE Asia.  And the sad saga continues on with a life of its own, when things that are bad are not getting any better, like some kind of Evil undead, where Bad is meeting Worse.


My friend and colleague Thung Miep swears the country is cursed.  I look at him with an ironic stare, as I tell him, “Buddy, I could have told you that!”


And Pol Pot was still alive and well. He died much later —in 1997— alone and sick in the nomad  jungle where he dwelt.
He was never charged with any crime
















All engines on

I’ve been on the road before, inconsistently yet constant, a rebellious trade of my character that would not settle for a “you can’t do that!”  My response to that always has been, “Oh no?  Really?. . .  Watch me”.  The challenge was on, and like a cartoon of the Road Runner,  my feet kicked the dust and I just zoomed out from the ground where I happened to be standing.  I was young and I was restless.  And I wanted to mature on the road, find my purpose, and hopefully evolve.  I had the good fortune to have highly permissive parents. After all, they couldn’t repress me, nor stop me. . . .

I sailed from Buenos Aires, donned a backpack and headed north, never looking back.  All my senses were alert, and the taste of freedom was incomparable to any other feeling in any other time.  I hitchhiked everywhere, going from city to town, crossing rivers and lakes, jungles and falls.  And the feeling was that of exhilarating elation. In order to survive,  I started to make hippie jewelry with beans and copper strings and I would sell them as I went along.  In some cases I would find a girl companion who was either running away or found in my company a good excuse to do just that.
Everybody knows that when you travel with a cute young female, your chances to get picked up grow greatly. During the trip, they would keep the drivers entertained while I slept soundly.  It worked like a charm that it was. And I’m going,, getting closer and closer to the point of no return.
Brazil was everything I expected it to be.  From now on ,I would have to reinvent myself and use every tool available for my survival.  And what an reinvention that turned out to be. . . .

I have no Message….

The Pope of Greewhich Vllage

Seven years later,  while I was living in NYC , I met a homeless man who could have easily portrayed Robin Williams character in “The Fisher King” He was what I would consider brilliant. Not quite a poet, the man could write some heavy duty prose. Alienated from society, he was always thinking outside the box and as I spoke to him, I would envision the man surrounded by voracious readers and would-be writers transfixed by the outstanding fluency of his rhetoric. I would picture him as a professor of academics in some fancy East Coast university and the “star” of such. His writings were not only fascinating, but also edgy, poignant and highly philosophical. He was worldly, knew Roman and Greek history to precise dates and even spoke some Latin.
I would share long afternoons with him listening to his arguments carefully, and learning much in the process. He didn’t seem to want a lot from life, except for the tools he would use for his basic survival and the open opportunities, as he would call them, to learn something else, as a constant, everyday.
He said his name didn’t matter but everybody knew him as “The Pope”. His face was like that of a biblical prophet (some homeless people have a tendency to look that way); his weathered face told the tale of his hard existence, and his deep green eyes shone from the brilliancy within the frames of his glasses. Who was this so knowledgeable man? Was it my destiny to meet him? I don’t think it’ll be too soon before I will find the answer to that question. In the meantime, I keep on reading the manuscripts that he wrote and that he so kindly left behind. “For the kids that are yet to become whole”–he said, “and for you” as he went outside, back into the streets of New York City. He succumbed to pneumonia in that city on Feb 22. 2009. One year and one day today.

But he did leave in me a sense of wanting, a void that only pure knowledge would satisfy, even if I didn’t know what that meant at the time. To never stop searching, never stop discovering. And to find out what really makes us tick. As human beings and as souls.

Maybe we’ll meet again, Pope,  in some other place, or alternate Universe…and I hope by then I’ll have something to tell you that you would love to hear. Right now I have no idea what that is, but I have no doubt there’s a secret on those pages. A message of some kind, a hidden treasure. And I will continue to try to decipher it. Perhaps then, I, too, will become what you meant by being ‘whole”.

Part 2

The Pope endlessly repeats -as I pressure him to elaborate on a deep philosophical premise- “I have no message for nobody.” Yet, ironically, all the people who’ve had the opportunity (and the privilege) to hear him talk, feel otherwise and flock instinctively to his unique brand of discourse. But that isn’t easy because he organizes no gatherings, gives no “speeches” –ramblings maybe–, pushes no method, peddles no mantras, has no organization, no office, no secretary, no telephone number, no fax and no fixed address. How could he? Our Pope is homeless. But he has became a fixture in Greenwich Village and as he grows more popular everyday, he has managed to become, very unwillingly some kind of local hero, a legend in his own right. Pope is everywhere and nowhere. He stays with the streets, and they have become the vehicle by which he delivers his message. But he insists that he has no message, so the man has become a human oxymoron, a beautiful contradiction and a sight to behold. There was a day when he just disappeared. He stayed away for two and a half weeks. I tried to locate him by checking with hospitals, the local jail, the police precincts. Nothing. I even checked the morgue with my heart pounding in my throat, and an awful sickening feeling in my stomach. Nothing, no trace of him anywhere. The streets were lonely without him. Even Washington Park was depleted of the beautiful aura it always had. Everything had suddenly changed. Many people were wondering what could be done. He had touched so many souls that even the ones who didn’t know him like I did, were truly worried, restless, anxious. There was no Internet or cell phones in those days, so I gathered a couple of friends and we hung fliers and posters with the ubiquitous, “Have you seen this man? When he finally returned, he had the nerve to ask, through a smart-ass smirk on his face, “Why are you treating me like a criminal with all those FBI-like wanted posters, where have you guys been all this time? We could only chuckle away with him as I felt a great benevolent feeling of relief and inner-calmness once again. So, after a quick pro quo, he confessed to us that he felt, all at the sudden, the need to be near water. Not to wash up, oh no ! but he had the imperative call of the Ocean, as he put it. The beaches of Coney Island and The New Jersey Shore. He recalled for us how liberating that feeling was. I had to concur since I understood exactly what he meant.   

 I came soon afterward to the conclusion, the magnificent realization, that I really, really loved this so strange a man.


by René Volpi

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